What is the Purpose of Criticism?

What is the purpose of film criticism? Or literary criticism? Or art criticism? What is the purpose of criticism in general?

A short time ago, I was participating in a discussion on Facebook about the film The Dark Knight Rises. I’m continually appalled by how much attention otherwise intelligent people pay to this 250 million dollar piece of dreck. I don’t mean teenage kids. I don’t mean frat boys and sorority girls on dates. I mean people in their 20s and 30s, serious intellectuals with degrees from Ivy League universities and PHDs. I remarked that I thought the film unworthy of criticism, that it was a product, not a work of art, that the advertising campaign around The Dark Knight Rises is more interesting than the Dark Knight Rises itself. The idea that The Dark Knight Rises is a right-wing, anti Occupy Wall Street movie, I argued, is part of that marketing campaign. Left wing intellectuals who debate its “politics” are, in reality help selling the film. They’re unintentional, unpaid interns for Chris Nolan.

My argument was not well received. Lots of grownups seem peculiarly dedicated to comic books and superheroes. There are, of course, well made superhero films and well-made comic books, but I refuse to believe that the Dark Knight Rises is anything more than a clunky excuse to spend 250 million dollars, a paycheck for some otherwise good actors, one facet of a multi-faceted marketing juggernaut. For me, the only “criticism” that The Dark Knight Rises is worthy of is what Mark Twain did to James Fenimore Cooper or what Cervantes did to chivalric romances. The critic should aim high. He should have the intention of changing the frame of the debate, of making it impossible for anyone ever again to make a Batman film. The purpose of criticizing The Dark Knight Rises should be to destroy The Dark Knight Rises.

“The Batman franchise is over if you want it.”

I believe John Lennon said that, although it’s a fairly loose paraphrase.

I started thinking. Why are so many otherwise intelligent people determined to talk about bad mass culture, The Dark Knight Rises, or mediocre mass culture, Madmen or Breaking Bad, when there’s such a rich, extraordinary tradition of American cinema. Why in God’s name should anyone spend 30 seconds on a Batman film when the collected works of John Ford still exist? Why do so many serious intellectuals spend so much time writing about so much trash? How many words over the summer were written about Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines?” Yeah, it’s a rotten song, but its really not particularly dangerous. I doubt even one woman was raped or sexually assaulted because some frat boy spent the summer listening to it.

I think it comes down to what we want out of criticism.

  1. Some people want to define a (universal) canon. What films should be preserved? What films (or books) should be taught in universities.

  1. Other people want to define an (alternative) canon. There are films with limited appeal. I don’t think Godard’s Maoist phase is ever going to attract a mass audience, but these films are worth discussing.

  1. There are people who want to explore history by building a canon of forgotten or suppressed classics. The Communist film Salt of the Earth, for example, was buried in the McCarthyite hysteria of the 1950s. But it’s an important historical document. If if just one or two of the dozens of articles Salon.com dedicates to the TV show Girls were dedicated to the the powerful 1930s documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains, it might start us on the way to an intelligent discussion of climate change.

  1. There are critics who see themselves as evangelists for low budget student films, obscure novels, and alternative music. There was, for example, a whole genre of music criticism that came out of college radio in the 1980s. Yes children, back then, serious intellectuals didn’t waste time talking about Miley Cyrus’s ass. Well, maybe they discussed Madonna or Michael Jackson, but only in the context of promoting something better.

  1. Sadly, I think most criticism, at least online, accepts the idea that there is no alternative to the production of corporate mass culture, that the cultural “struggle” should center on “interpreting” corporate mass culture, not replacing it. That’s why rotten crap like “Blurred Lines” isn’t simply ignored, or, if written about, only written about in the context of its production and marketing. Feminist intellectuals think it’s important to give it their own spin. Paradoxically, now that cheap, high quality video cameras are available, people don’t make their own TV shows. They struggle over the ideological framing of TV shows produced by HBO. The result, in the end, is over interpretation, elaborate edifices built on inadequate foundations.

You are free, of course, to add your own reasons. My list is far from complete. But I do think the more we can stay away from category 5 the better.

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